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Help with Mexican food

I know this is not authentic Mexican, but I have a couple of questions (#1 and #2 are most pressing; if you can answer #3, it's a bonus!):

1. What are the spices/herbs I can use for fajita and taco, burrito seasonings; I am trying to get away from prepackaged seasonings?

2. I want to make a dish I had at work (catered in) one day. It is a sort of Mexican pizza. Bottom layer - tortilla, top with chichen (cooked), peppers and onions, cheese, repeat layer. Top layer with cheese. Bake and serve with salsa and sour cream. Cut into wedges. How can I do it so the tortillas aren't so dry? The one I had seemed to have a slight reddish coour from either juice from chicken that was cooked or something; it was not greasy at all.

3. Mexican casserole - Want to make a big casserole using tortillas, ground chicken with sauce (kind of like a wetter burrito mixture), black olives, green onions, cheese. Ideas?

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  1. The first one is easy. I season meat with garlic, onion, cumin, dried Mexican oregano, dried sage, dried chili powder - I like arbol but they are very spicy. You can use ancho or New Mexico for milder seasoning, and salt and pepper. You need to taste taste taste to get the flavor that you like, but this can give you a start.

    For 2 and 3, there are so many ways that you could construct these dishes so many different ways. What specifically do you want? A complete recipe? Some seasoning ideas? I would say to be adventurous and try making the dishes to your own taste.

    1. # 1 Use dried oregano, pref. Mexican, chili powder, cumin, thyme, salt, pepper, garlic. Dried chiles are good too, depending upon how hot and what's available.

      #2 Wet the tortillas with either some salsa, or enchilada sauce, which is available canned.

      #3 Brown your chicken with onions & salt. Add your seasoning mix and canned tomatoes, either sauce or chopped. Let cook down at a simmer for a while. Add canned beans if you like. Use salsa or enchilada sauce to spread a layer in bottom of pan. lay down tortillas. Layer with the meat mixture, cooled. Sprinkle with shredded cheddar and monterey jack, sliced olives, scallions. Repeat layers with tortillas, meat, cheese, etc. Last layer with tortillas spread w/refried beans and spread with cheese. Baked covered for 20 min at 350, then take off foil and bake 5-7 more to brown cheese. Serve with sour cream and salsa.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Phurstluv

        #2 Wet the tortilla with salsa...
        Right! I have a layered enchilada casserole recipe that calls for the corn tortillas to be soaked in salsa (thinned with water)...soak for about 20 minutes...drain off the salsa and use in your stacked tortilla pie--they will stay moist.

        1. re: Val

          Didn't know if the op was fond of using canned enchilada sauce....;P

        2. re: Phurstluv

          Sounds delish. I am going to have to play with the Mexican seasonings; many more spices than I thought.

        3. I would love to know how to make enchilada sauce (red one) from scratch. For #2. the edges were crispy and toasted and inside was more moist. It looked like the chicken had a slight reddish tinge, but I am open to ideas.
          The biggest issue for #3 is how to keep the tortillas from soaking up the sauce when baked; I must have to make it wetter than regular lasagna. I know to stop the absorption issue, they normally quick fry the tortilla (dip) in hot oil, but I really don't want to add more oil.

          2 Replies
          1. re: itryalot

            Have you started to play with dried Mexican chiles, like the ancho and guajillo? That's the starting point for many of these sauces.

            1. re: itryalot

              Google "Rick Bayless and enchilada sauce", you'll find a decent one. Since you're asking the question, you're probably looking for a red enchilada--green is more interesting, most of the time though...

            2. General suggestion - buy or get from the library Rick Bayless' Essential Kitchen book. Recipes for a wide range of Mexican dishes, salsas, moles, etc. etc.

              The OP's #2 sure looks like a layered enchilada to me. Tons of recipes.

              For your #3 Mexican-Style Casserole - try a combination of hominy, diced butternut squash, drained black beans, diced tomatoes, cooked ground beef seasoned with cumin, chile powder or powdered chiles, a squirt of lime juice and oregano. Put a layer of corn tortillas on the bottom of a 9x13, then a layer of salsa. Then the meat topped with a layer of white Mexican cheese. Follow that with the vegetables and then top with lots of cheese. Bake at 350 until everything is bubbly and the internal temp is 135.

              1. The concept behind #1 is totally wrong and so corporate America. Just choose the meat of your choice and cook it properly; basic S&P and a short citrus marination is a good start. Traditional regional recipes will be more specific. Use the freshest tortillas that you can find.

                The most important part is to prepare your salsas (sauces) from scratch. Those made from fresh chiles are quick and easy using a immersion blender. Using whole dried chiles requires more prep - deseed, toast, soak in hot water, blend, strain. I use this recipe that I, er, tweaked from R. Bayless often because canned chipotles en adobo and tomatillos are plentiful all year round: http://www.chow.com/recipes/11456
                The few bottled salsas that aren't total crap are usually not trad Mexican and made for serving with chips (also not Mexican).

                Re #2 and #3, what passes in the US for a 'Mexican pizza or casserole' is usually a 1950s, gringo-fied version of chilaquiles or enchiladas. Absolutely nothing wrong with stacked enchiladas SW style, but concentrate on making the right salsa and stay away from black olives and cheddar cheese :-). paulj is pointing in the right direction - it is amazing how good a simple chile and tomato sauce is when it doesn't come out of a can. OTOH the 'hot' varieties of Hatch brand enchilada sauce are decent. Here are some CH candidates for your enchiladas, er, casserole:
                http://www.chow.com/recipes/14593
                http://www.chow.com/recipes/10646
                http://www.chow.com/recipes/11143
                If you don't want to fry your tortillas before coating with sauce, just wipe them with a little oil and bake them for a short time. Some folks dip in sauce then fry - IMO this is an advanced skill and can be messy.

                I agree with the above suggestions to Seek out cookbooks by Bayless, Diana Kennedy, Patricia Quintana and others not in the current FN rotation. There are some good Mex style salsa recipes that can be Googled, but beware of the cliche 'pico de gallo'.

                8 Replies
                1. re: DiveFan

                  you are so right! Brands like Maggi, Knorr, Goya, Cholula, Dona Maria are unheard of south of the border. :)

                  1. re: paulj

                    Dona Maria is very common all over Mexico--you find it in all the national chains throughout Mexico. Also, Maggi, Knorr are probably the most common brands of broths used by regular families. Salsa Maggi, is used in almost every restaurant in Mexico for marinading meat and steak tacos. Furthermore, Knorr (or what they call Knorr-Suiza) is used as the name for chicken broth powder in general--sort of like how we call tissues Kleenex...

                    Sorry Paul, lived in Mexico for years, As for Goya or Cholula, can't say I've seen them there, but Goya, as far as I know, is more popular in the Carribean.

                    1. re: hankstramm

                      I have a lot of family in Mex DF and I too have seen the above mentioned products like Maggi, Knorr and Dona Maria in many homes

                      1. re: hankstramm

                        I think paulj was making an ironic joke. Maggi, Knorr, and Goya are found in Colombia, even farther south of the border.

                        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                          I've been told that Knorrs Caldo de Pollo is an essential seasoning.....I started using it in my enchiladas and love it, even though its first ingredient is salt.

                          1. re: coll

                            I use the 'pollo y tomate' version (chicken and tomato). There are even 'picante' spicy versions.

                            In the days when chickens were old and tough, cooking them till tender gave a flavorful broth. A typical mole uses the broth from cooking the chicken to dilute the sauce base of ground chiles and nuts. Peruvian aji de gallina uses the same approach. Seasonings like Knorrs make up for flavor that is missing in modern young chickens, especially for the busy part time cook.

                    2. re: DiveFan

                      You've given me food for thought (no pun intended). I do want to get a good Mexican recipe book, but I think I might be more a tex-mex person instead of authentic. When we were in Mexico, I ate Mexican daily, but I suspect they bastardized it for the tourists.

                      1. re: DiveFan

                        This was meant to be in response to Dive Fan. Not sure why it ended up here!
                        In the states, I used Las Palmas canned red chile sauce as a convenience sometimes, and it was fine. Mostly, in those days at least, it was just red chiles, water, salt. Here in México, I make salsas using dried chiles if it is a recipe that I am preparing for guests, but when cooking for myself I often go for a box of some kind of prepared chile sauce for convenience. There are many (pasilla, chipoltle, adobo, etc) on all the grocery shelves. It is a convenience I am sure most Mexican cooks appreciate! Why dirty the blender for a quick meal? Maggi salsa is SO good! Really great when you are grilling meat. And Knorr Suiza is my friend, too. All the good cooks I know have a big jar of it in the cupboard!

                      2. Hi - there is a great Cooks Illustrated (I believe) recipe for homemade tacos (the meat part). I too wanted to try to avoid the packets just to reduce the crazy sodium they have. Anyway, after I used that recipe, I can't go back. Sooo much better - noticably so.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: burbankfoodie

                          I've made Cook's Ilustrated's "Beef Taco" recipe numerous times in Mexico City. People go crazy for them. I've been asked for the recipe 2-3 times--had to translate it in to Spanish...

                        2. I notice that Chili Powder (of various types) oregano, and cumin are mentioned pretty consistently. What about cayenne? I've always tended to use a mix of cayenne, chili powder and cumin.. is that a no-no?

                          6 Replies
                          1. re: KaimukiMan

                            It's whatever your taste is. I always find that cayenne adds mainly heat, no flavor.

                            1. re: Phurstluv

                              to me it adds heat, but also a certain sharpness... more of an astringent heat, although too much can (to me at least) become bitter.

                              thanks phurst

                              1. re: KaimukiMan

                                Agreed. tho, it does have it's place in recipes. like chili. I don't use it very much anymore, now that I cook for two small boys!

                            2. re: KaimukiMan

                              Chili powder is intended for making chili, a Texas stew (though it does have Mexican roots). If you haven't made chili from scratch (grinding your own dried chiles etc), I'd suggest getting a kit like 'Wick Fowler's 2-Alarm Chili Mix' - one that has separate packets of mild ground chile, cumin, oregano, hot chile etc. It's a nice way of getting a feel for the way these ingredients contribute to the final dish.

                              1. re: KaimukiMan

                                Yes, chile, oregano and cumin probably are the main spices for hamburger tacos and beef enchiladas, not a Mexican thing at all. (But, not "chile powder" meant for chile con carne, either, just straight red chile powder of whatever variety is available where you live.) Cayenne would add some heat with no noticable flavor. I think you need a TexMex cookbook, not a Mexican one! Find a good taco truck in your neighborhood and taste the pure goodness of a real Mexican taco. Then decide if you want Mexican or not. Buen provecho.

                                1. re: MazDee

                                  MazDee, like I mentioned before, I've prepared Cooks Illustrated's Beef Taco recipe in DF for family on numerous occasions. People love them. I don't call them tacos, but they're great and everyone goes for seconds...